The Toyota RAV4 has been with us since 1996, and has maintained a strong presence in the compact SUV class ever since. Although its novel semi-convertible and 3-door variants have long since disappeared, it continues to hold at least one trump card versus its many competitors -- an optional third-row seat.
The side-hinged rear door and external spare tire mount are unique to the RAV4 as well, but these distinctions are no longer perceived as positive, at least by our test crew. They're likely to disappear when this generation of the RAV4, number three, gives way to number four late this fall.
The redesign probably can't come too soon for Toyota dealers, because even after some cosmetic freshening last year, the current RAV4 is definitely showing its age. This is most apparent within, where lots of hard plastic lends a cheapish note to the interior materials, the instrumentation looks dated compared to some of the eye-pleasing displays in the new vehicles, and the nav screen isn't well shrouded, suffering from washout in bright sun as a consequence.
The seats provide reasonable comfort, though there's not much lateral support. Leather trim -- part of a $4,040 navigation option group -- enhances the interior experience, and the package also adds heating to the front seats (power adjustabile on the driver's side), plus power lumbar support. Besides the nav and seating highlights, the package also includes a power tilt/slide moonroof and a 120-volt AC power outlet.
The rear seats offer fore-aft adjustability, and the seatbacks also recline. The Toyota also boasts the top cargo capacity in this group. This generous cargo hold is a function of a design conceived to accommodate an optional third row of seating ($850), as noted earlier. It's a bragging point, but the reality of the RAV4's third row is extremely snug, making the fore-aft adjustability of the middle row a necessity, rather than a nicety.
While the RAV4 may be superannuated in some ways, its chassis rigidity still measures up well versus its newer competitors. However, Toyota has chosen to exploit this virtue in favor of smooth ride quality, rather than crisp responses. There's substantial body roll in hard cornering, and the electric power steering system confuses effort with road feel. The suspension tuning adds up to a vehicle that's reasonably comfortable, but not very engaging for the driver, despite excellent forward sightlines.
The RAV4's biggest dynamic demerit, however, lies with its powertrain -- specifically, its 4-speed automatic transmission. Toyota offers a very robust V6 engine option for this vehicle (269 horsepower, 246 lb-ft of torque) and a 5-speed automatic to go with it. But allied with the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder (179 horsepower, 172 lb-ft of torque) the gearing gaps make the engine work hard and loud when the driver kicks down for passing or a freeway merge.
With the exception of the Honda CR-V, most vehicles in this class offer 6-speed automatics, a plus for smooth performance and fuel economy. The 4-speed automatic underlines the fuel economy aspect. Even without 4-wheel drive, at 22 mpg city/28 highway, the RAV4's EPA fuel economy ratings are the lowest among the 4-cylinder vehicles in this group.
As noted, this RAV4 is essentially a lame duck. There's a major redesign en route, which will undoubtedly address some if not all of our reservations. However, a case can be made for acquiring the current model. Our well-equipped test vehicle -- leather, navi, power moonroof -- was competitively priced in this group at $29,090, and when the new 2013 Toyota RAV4s begin rolling into showrooms there are bound to be bargains among the remaining 2012 models.